Couple's 'Downton Château' dream inspired by National Trust

The Château du Rocher-Portail opens its doors to volunteers and fresh ideas

A French couple who love all things British are looking for volunteers to help them fulfil their dream of opening their very own Downton Abbey to the public. They have been inspired by the work of the National Trust and would love to have local people and students to man the rooms and talk to the public - just as volunteers do in National Trust properties.

Manuel and Madly Roussel have bought one of the most beautiful castles in Brittany: the Château du Rocher-Portail in Saint-Brice-en-Coglès in the Ille-et-Vilaine. They are hoping to share the rich history of their bijou mal connu and make it a Breton tourist destination by opening it to the public - starting in June.

“We both adore British culture – the afternoon tea and lovely manicured gardens – and my husband has a passion for history. So when we found out about this château near Mont Saint Michel we just had to have a closer look,” says Mrs Roussel. “Thanks to the National Trust, the concept of making beautiful places accessible for the sake of sharing special moments is widespread in the UK. In France, it is less well known but we hope to bring more attention to this idea.”

The 16th-century castle was built by Gilles de Ruellan, a successful Breton businessman and close friend of royals like Henry IV who, together with his children, went on to construct the châteaux de la Ballue, du Tiercent, du Rocher-Sénéchal et de Monthorin around Fougères. The earliest and most impressive of them all, the Château du Rocher-Portail, is thought to have been completed in 1617.

It served as a family home for generations. Today, most of the original decoration and furniture remains in the 3,000m2 property and has been well preserved by the former owners.

Listed as a historical monument, the grounds are of significant cultural heritage value; but, surprisingly, have never been open to the public. In honour of this year’s 400th anniversary of their completion, the Roussels will welcome visitors to the castle and 60-hectare gardens daily from 15th June to 15th September, between 10am and 6pm. Guided tours in English and French will be available.

The couple said: “We hope that our château will become a place of cultural exchange and enjoyment for people of all ages. We would love to host temporary art exhibitions, work with local organisations and host various activities. We take part in a local franglais café group in the nearby village and already two of the English members, who are so good at this kind of thing have started to make objects for us. One woman is making fabric cupcakes and another is making crocheted crowns. We want to get the local community as involved as possible. ”

Soon, visitors will be able to take cookery courses, hike across the garden trails and even celebrate their weddings at the château. “Our reception hall fits many people and the happy couple can stay in our honeymoon suite right on the grounds.”

The Roussels are currently restoring the property and creating a tea room with the help of Annie Sloan. The British painter selected their project as part of a competition she created to celebrate her 25th business anniversary, which saw 25 projects from round the world nominated for Sloan’s help, and the tea room renovation was one of the lucky winners.

The new managers of the Château du Rocher-Portail are constantly looking for fresh ideas, and welcome suggestions or applications from those looking to be part of their volunteer staff. They can be reached by email on communication@lerocherportail.fr.

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